The Dangers of Steamboating

A Walk Along the Kissimmee River. Via South Florida Water Management District.

Florida Desperado

Desperate Fight with and Escape of a Cattle Dealer.

By United Press over Private Wire.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., April 8. – A special from Kissimmee City to the Herald gives an account of the exciting events resulting in the capture of Ralph Willingham, a rich cattle owner and noted desperado of the Southern Florida wilderness. Willingham went aboard a steamer trading on the Kissimmee river and lakes and demanded of Captain Pearce by what right he ran a steamer on those waters. The Captain gave a civil answer, but was attacked by the gigantic Willingham who would have killed him with his bowie knife but for the interference of the crew. After a bloody struggle in which two of the crew were wounded, Willingham was overpowered and bound. Redding Parker, a brother-in-law of Willingham and also a desperate character, was asleep in the lower part of the boat during the struggle. On learning of Willingham’s capture he made a desperate effort to release his friend, and it required another fierce combat to subdue him. He afterward escaped from his captors, swam ashore and escaped. Captain Pearce took his prisoner to Galando, the county seat, to claim a standing reward of $2,500 for the outlaw. Willingham, who is known as the cattle king of South Florida, insolently boasts that his great wealth will enable him to buy his freedom. He is said to be guilty of five murders.

florida desperado. Willingham was overpowered and bound.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]

Ormond-by-the-Sea, 1897: A Yankee’s Paradise

ormond by the sea
Sailing on the Beach, Ormond, Florida. Via Shorpy

What a Connecticut Yankee Has Done.

Correspondence of The Courant.

Hotel Ormond, Ormond, Fla., April 14.

“Why don’t the northern papers say something about Florida?” inquired a gentleman from “The Hub” at the breakfast table of the Ormond this morning. “I come here every night, and naturally search my Boston papers for correspondence from Florida resorts, but I look in vain.”

“Perhaps,” we replied, “with the variety of weather they are having in New England at present, the North is a bit jealous of the South in the matter of spring climate, and thinks it just as well not to mention that farther down the coast there is an average temperature of 70 degrees, with balmy breezes, flowers in bloom and gardens at their best.”

ormond by the sea. an average temperature of 70 degrees, with balmy breezes, flowers in bloom and gardens at their best.

However that may be, the Boston man’s remark was a suggestion that perhaps the Connecticut people who have visited this charming spot, and the many more who would have come if they could, might be interested in a few lines from Ormond, and an accompanying story of what one Connecticut man has been doing down here for the past twenty years.

We have been a month in Florida, and have traversed the length of the east coast, 360 miles from Jacksonville to Miami. We have seen all the beautiful hotels of the Flagler system, stopping at the Moorish palaces in St. Augustine, the Royal Poinciana at Palm Beach, and the Royal Palm at Miami. And, lastly, at the closing week of the season, we have come to lovely Ormond, and find it the most home-like, the most restful and altogether enjoyable of them all.

Ormond-by-the-Sea, fifty miles south of St. Augustine, is also Ormond-on-the-Halifax, the town lying on the west bank of the Halifax, and the hotel on the peninsula, half a mile wide, between the river and the ocean. The Halifax is really an arm of the sea, a tropical lagoon, its banks fringed with groves of palmetto, orange, oak and pine. Hotel Ormond fronts the river, its yellow towers and balconies peeping through the picturesque groves and shaded pathways of its ample grounds. Its wide plazzas invite the visitor to “Cease to think, and be content to be,” and its doorways swing side to a home-like hospitality, dispensed by its courteous proprietors, Messrs. Anderson and Price, the one a New Englander, the other a Kentuckian. The lobby bright with pots of ferns, flowers and palms, with a big Dutch fireplace where an oaken log glows on cool evenings, is the favourite indoor resort. In the office hangs a portrait of James Ormond, an English officer in the Bahamas, to whom the Spanish government gave in 1790 a grant of land, covering the town which bears his name. Here he settled and cleared large sugar plantations. Two ruined chimneys, used for sugar boiling, mark the site of these plantations, and are objective points for one of the delightful drives for which Ormond is famous. The roads here are hard and smooth, of marl and shell deposit, and one may drive for miles through the shaded hammock or along the beach, without ploughing through any tiresome sand. The beach, one of the most beautiful on the Atlantic coast, is, at low tide, a broad, smooth boulevard, where the horses’ feet resound as on a pavement, and where the wheel hardly leaves a mark; an ideal stretch of twenty miles for the bicycle or the carriage drive.

ormond by the sea. The roads here are hard and smooth, of marl and shell deposit

En passant, Florida may give us a lesson in the use of the wide tire. All the carriages here have wheel tires from two to three inches in width, which roll smoothly without sinking in the track, improving rather than cutting up the roads. A picturesque drive takes us to Daytona, largely a New England settlement, seven miles to the south, and called the prettiest village in Florida, with its handsome homes and shaded avenues. Going south, the drive is through the hammock, shaded by oaks and palmettos, and pines so tall that their “tiny tops seem close against the sky.” Returning by the beach, the surf rolls in on our right, and wild ducks, flocks of snipe and little fiddler crabs watch for their pray after each receding wave. Near the hotel is a neat Episcopal Church, with a rectory adjoining. Here service is held weekly during the tourist season. The Rev. John T. Huntington of Hartford is a frequent preacher here. A favourite drive with the tourist is seven miles to the north to “Number Nine,” the plantation of C. A. Bacon, a veteran of the Seventh Connecticut Volunteers, wounded at Hilton Head and a living example of what Yankee pluck, brains and energy will do without other capital.

After the close of the war, Mr. Bacon took up a government grant of three-quarters of a mile front on the peninsula between the Halifax and the ocean. In 1876 he left New Britain for his new home, arriving in the Florida wilderness in March, with 50 cents in his pocket. He built a palmetto hut, five miles from a human habitation, and began clearing his ground, working all day, and often by moonlight. Deer, bears, possums, ‘coons and owls were his only companions. Mr Bacon named his camp “Number Nine,” from Jim Fenton’s camp in the story of “Seven Oaks” by J.G. Holland. His first house, to which he brought his wife, was covered with cypress shingles made by himself from logs brought ten miles on a raft. The frame of the house was built from the deck plank of the West India steamer Vera Cruz, wrecked off Ormond in 1880, and three of the doors are from the steamer’s cabin. Mr. Bacon gathered a large amount of useful stores from the wreckage, and buried the bodies washed ashore.

ormond by the sea. Deer, bears, possums, ‘coons and owls were his only companions

His first business venture was the setting of a half acre of seedling orange trees, which in two years netted him $1,600. He has kept on working and clearing, until now he has a fifteen-acre orange grove, under high cultivation, fine seedling nurseries, an established business in canned fruits, and a beautiful garden, with plants and shrubs from every corner of the globe. The late freeze made disastrous work with his orange grove, but, with his true wife for a help-meet, he works bravely on. His 50 cents has become $50,000 – counting property and yearly profits. He has just built a pretty new house, in colonial style, and as we admired the polished mahogany finish of hall and staircase, he told us that the wood was washed ashore from a South American vessel after a storm. He showed a field of Para grass from which he gathers a crop of eight tons to the acre, a crop maturing in six weeks. We also saw a Yankee apple tree, which, losing all reckoning in the Florida climate, was exhausting itself with two crops a year.

Mr. Bacon is still a New Englander at heart, with a genial manner, and an inexhaustible fund of stories. Visitors are all welcome, but especially those from his own state, to whom he is proud to relate that he fought for the Union under General Hawley, was in thirteen battles, three times wounded, and is still hale and hearty. – J.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]

Antics of the Great Horned Virginia Owl

great horned owl
Horned Owl. Via


I heard a bird singing the other night. It introduced itself as “Who-who! who-who!” That was the whole burden of its song as it sat there on the summit of a tall pine tree.       

The moonlight was very brilliant, as it always is in Florida, and the outline of the great bird stood out sharply against the sky. It did not look at all like “the little cherub that sits up aloft.” In truth, its aspect was the direct opposite, for two horn-like spurs stood up over its head, and a distinct tail hung down below the branch on which it sat. Without doubt, these significant looking horns, feathers though they be, have as much to do as its gruesome cry with the dread in which many people hold the great-horned Virginia owl. I have never met any one yet who enjoys that uncanny “Who-who! who-who!” in the middle of the night.

great horned virginia owl. the outline of the great bird stood out sharply against the sky

Not long ago two carpenters, who were new to the sights and sounds of our Florida wilderness, became involved in a quarrel with some of the old settlers. The former slept in a little log cabin in the woods, and that night they were roused from their slumbers by an appalling sound, a deep, hollow voice calling “who-who! who-who!”

It was close by, and the next moment the signal, as the carpenters believed it to be, was answered from the other side. Then they felt sure that their enemies had come to attack them. Seizing their guns they clambered out one of the side windows and crept softly away into a clump of palmettos. They were badly demoralized. Again came that blood-curdling cry, again its answer, and then two of the big horned owls flew over their heads and the “who-who! who-who!” died away in the distance.

The men looked at each other, had a hearty laugh and went back to bed. The joke was too good to keep to themselves, so one day they told it.

Another man had a comical experience in this line, not long afterwards. He had been to town and imbibed rather more liquid refreshments than was good for him. Consequently he lost his way in the dark. He was sober enough, however, to begin to shout, hoping that some one would hear and answer him.

           “I’m lost I’m lost!” he shouted; and presently came an answering call:

            “Who-who? who-who?”

            “I’m lost! I’m lost!”

            “Who-who? who-who?”

            “What’s matter who? It’s me, Tom Smith, and I’m lost.


“It’s me, Tom Smith, I tell you!” interrupted the irate wanderer. “Can’t you tell a feller the road without askin’ his name? Say, what yer doin’ up in that tree, anyhow? Come down out o’ that, ‘stead o’ sittin’ up there sassin’ folks!”

For by this time he had traced the answering voice to a tree by the roadside, and when a neighbour who had been enjoying the fun, revealed himself, the angry man was treating the supercilious owl that sat up aloft with some very energetic language.

Even the Indians, fierce and savage and heedless of danger as they are, have a wholesome fear of the great horned owl. They dread that weird “who-who! who-who!” even knowing whence it comes. They call its source the “Death owl.” Let an Indian hear its hollow, resounding call, and at once he whistles to it, or, if not in sight, towards the direction whence the sound proceeds. Then he listens in intense, breathless eagerness. If the owl repeats the cry, the savage goes on his way rejoicing. But if there be no answer to his whistle the Indian bows his head in resignation, and moves slowly away in the full belief that he has heard his summons to a speedy death.

great horned virginia owl. fierce and savage and heedless of danger as they are

No one who has heard that melancholy cry coming out of the stillness of a dark night is likely to forget it. Many a time in the by-gone days of Indian warfare has a sudden call to arms in the dead of night been drawn forth by the startling cry of “who-who! who-who!” But you must not suppose that this is all the great horned owl is capable of in this line. It has other nocturnal solos and one of these is an excellent imitation of the half-suffocating screams of a person who is being throttled. I heard not long ago of two newcomers here in Florida who bravely rushed out into the darkness, rifle in hand, to rescue a supposed victim from a murderous assault. They found no one, of course, and were further mystified by hearing the same distressed cries proceeding from the air above them. Looking up, they traced the shadowy outline of a large horned owl sitting on the peak of their house.     

Their dog had rushed out with them, and presently the owl ruffled up its feathers, drooped its wings and barked angrily, as clear and true a bark as that which the astonished dog sent back in return. This barking is an accomplishment that the owl delights in, especially in winter nights or when it sees a dog, toward which animal it shows a decided antipathy.

great horned virginia owl. barking is an accomplishment that the owl delights in

The great horned owl has a healthy appetite of its own, and disdains nothing, whether “fish, flesh or fowl;” squirrels, ducks, rabbits, rats, mice, weasels, chickens – all are eagerly captured and devoured.

But it has one favourite tidbit, over and above all others – it dearly loves the wild turkey. That bird, however, is a wise one, like unto the owl itself, and is always on the alert. The owl has small chance to capture it except by seeking out its roosting place and then pouncing on it suddenly from above, before it has time to awaken. But even so the owl does not always come off the victor in this sly little game. The wild turkey is a light sleeper, and is not often caught napping. Roused by the rushing wings of its swooping foe it often outwits the owl in a comical way. Down goes its head, up goes its tail; the latter spreading flat over its back like a shield.       

The owl alights with swift impetus on the stiff, slippery tail-feathers, and takes a regular toboggan slide down the sharply inclined back of its intended victim, shooting off into the air. Before it has time to turn or recover from its amazement at this queer turn of affairs, the turkey is off, hiding safely in the underbrush, and, as we can well imagine, indulging in a hearty laugh over its crestfallen foe. – Philadelphia Times.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]

Early Story of the Fountain of Youth

Ponce de Leon. Via American Gallery.

Florida is the land of wonders

Florida is the land of wonders, despite its wild morasses, its alligators, and its sterility in places. A recent and remarkable event there has raised the question, does Ponce de Lewis’ [sic] fountain of growth really exist? The circumstances, as brought out in a triple trial, are these: During the war, Fred. Halsemann, an old planter of Hillsboro county, fled at the approach of the Federal fleet, with his wife and child of five years. The wife got separated from the husband and child and wandered back home. Three years later, a man of about thirty, apparently, and a boy of five, came up to the house and joyfully greeted the lady, but were beaten and driven away. In the scuffle, however, a picture of the lady fell from the man’s pocket, and he explained that he was her husband, but that in his wanderings had fallen into a spring, and was at once changed from and old man to one of apparently thirty. He plunged his son in, but it merely seemed to check his growth.

early story fountain of youth. Florida is the land of wonders

After a few days the man reappeared, and reported that the child had died of fright and because of the beating he had received. Suit was at once instituted by the man for the recovery of his property, and three trials were had, the jury disagreeing each time. He rested his claim on the intimate knowledge of the history of the family, on the likeness of the child to the one taken away, and on his ability to point out the spring. He failed in the last item, – not remarkably, as few could surely locate points in a Florida wilderness. At the late election, the man was shot, thus ending the contest.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]

Up ↑